Thomas Atkinson’s Kazakh portraits

During his travels in Central Asia Thomas Atkinson met many local and tribal leaders. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Thomas decided to give them a place in his narrative, both by describing his encounters and conversations and, more importantly, by making artistic drawings and paintings of the people he met, which were later published in his books.

Today, those descriptions – literary and artistic – are often the only surviving record of the people who were prominent on the Steppes during the middle of the nineteenth century. Having made contact with the descendants of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson and helped them to travel to today’s Kazakhstan to see the places associated with their ancestors, it seems only right to try and trace the descendants of the Kazakh people they met during their journeys.

So I am publishing here Thomas’ portraits of the people that he and Lucy met on their travels in the late 1840s. I will include the names as they were recorded at the time. In many cases the spellings of the names in use today will be different, but it should not be too difficult to work out who they are. If you know any of these figures or their present-day families, please let me know. I am sure there will be people, particularly in Kazakhstan, who know some of these people.

I will start with Sultan Souk and his family. The Sultan, seen here wearing a medal from Tsar Alexander I, was a prominent nobleman who became a close friend of Thomas Atkinson. Aged at least 80 at this time, he was a leader of the Great Horde and Thomas describes him taking part in a meeting held at Kapal in January 1849 that brought

Atkinson’s painting of Sultan Souk and his family

together all the leaders to decide on a boundary between the Great and the Middle Hordes. Sultan Souk was determined that the northern boundary of the Great Horde’s lands in Semirechye region should be the Ac-Sou River, not the Bean or any other river.

The next character is Sultan Boulania. This Sultan, who had also received a medal from Tsar Alexander, was also a prominent leader. Thomas wrote of him that he was “reported to be by far the most enlightened and talented among the Kazakhs.” He found him in the hills around the headwaters of the Lepsou River in Semirechye. Here is his portrait:

Sultan Boulania

Soon after meeting Sultan Boulania, Thomas met with Sultan Alie Iholdi. He says he was “a distinguished man, who claims his descent from Timour Khan ; indeed, his son bears his name, as though destined to march the wild men of these regions across the Himalaya, like his ancestor… Behind him stands the chair of state, which is carried before him on a camel when the yurt is removed from one spot to another. The plumes of peacock’s feathers are a mark of great distinction among these people. The sultana is sitting on a pile of carpets, and the son behind the great iron caldron, standing on an iron frame, in which the sheep are cooked.”

Sultan Alie Iholdi

Next we hear of Sultan Beck, “the largest man and most wealthy Kazakhs in the steppes. He has ten thousand horses, and camels, oxen, and sheep in proportion to this vast herd.” His aoul was not far from the eastern end of Lake Balkash. Thomas writes: “He saluted me by touching the chest in the usual manner, after which we sat down and became friends. He drank tea with me, and remained to partake of his own mutton; and while this was preparing, he ordered his poet to sing for us. The man obeyed, and chanted forth songs, describing the prowess and successful plundering expeditions of my host and his ancestors, which called forth thunders of applause from the tribe. After spending more than two hours in the company of the sultan and his bard, we separated on friendly terms.” Thomas says he was fond of hunting with eagles, as is shown by the portrait he drew:

Sultan Beck and family
Sultan Beck with his favourite beercoote (eagle)

We next hear of Sultan Sabeck, whom Thomas met during a long journey into Dzungaria, Mongolia and then back into Eastern Kazakhstan. The precise place he met Sultan Sabeck is unclear, although it was very close to the Chinese border, north of Alakool Lake. Thomas says of the Sultan: “Sultan Sabeck was a tall man, with a ruddy, intelligent countenance, black eyes, and a dark beard. His kalat was of kanfa (Chinese satin), of a deep purple colour, with flowers embroidered in various-colored silks, which produced a beautiful robe. A rich yellow crepe scarf was tied round his waist; his cap was sable, turned up with crimson silk ; and he wore light green boots and yellow over-shoes.

Thomas did not publish a picture of Sultan Sabeck, but there is enough detail here to identify him.

I will publish further names and details shortly. In the meantime, if you can identify any of these important figures in Kazakh history, please let me know.


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